The last time we were together in a drink, not really booze, only a few bottles each of San Miguel, was several years ago – 23 years or so. We have long stopped the habit of drinking too much where we start with one bottle each but end up with the waitress putting a case beside us for the bottles we emptied.
Gil was a generation older, he was a fully grown man, of marrying age and was teaching English and Spanish in a high school which later on closed down and the man who founded it would become his father in-law through his marriage to that man’s eldest daughter who never went to college. After the school where he taught closed and we were little children he would watch us play rubber bonds we never realized while watching us, he would reveal to us later that he was wondering then what to do with his life at that time when he was out of work. We never really cared whether he was around or not. But when we were teenagers and were about to graduate from high school, he was to be our English teacher in the last few months of our high school life, no more Spanish as the government during that time perhaps felt the uselessness of learning the language but perhaps too the government wanted to cleanse us, beginning with our generation, of whatever influence good or bad the Spanish had left on the people. He assumed as substitute to our female English teacher who went on maternity leave until the close of the school year. And that was to be the beginning of our friendship, a friendship, in my case, that would last until his death.
As he was new to the school and to everybody, he needed somebody he can talk to. Once we found him talking with the security guard, he must have been telling jokes because the guard had been giggling in laughter while watching them from a distance. And when we joined them, we knew he changed topic – a serious one, fit for us students.
Although we were already of remembering age when he would watch us play, we care more on our toys than noticing a grown man in the sideline so we never really had the slightest idea who he really was. Our transformation from children to teenagers and his transition to old age changed both of us beyond each others' recognition. Neither do we recall that a grown man did not come unknowingly into our lives watching us play nor can he remember that we were the children he once watch playing.
He was not that old really, just about at the approach of forties. But our children’s standard made him look to us much older.
The remaining time left for our high school days seem to be short now that our friendship with Gil has began to take roots in our hearts. Before he arrived we have become impatient for the graduation day. He made learning easier; he made learning fun. But now that he had become our friend we have stopped longing to leave high school. He arrived and left our lives unknowingly and then came back to our lives for only seemingly a very short time.
Twenty three years or so ago, that was the last time we had our last beer together. And that was when we have become capable of engaging a learned man in conversations. Because by that time we already had our college degrees and have joined the teaching staff of the school where we graduated high school and Gil was still teaching there. Either he regretted having drank at the time he got his stroke or strokes at his age could come easy. We offer ourselves to take blames but he would only shrug his shoulders. Although the stroke caused no damage to his body, his vision and hearing suffered some impairment. For a while he tried whether he can still handle teaching before he accepted his incapacitation. He stayed home and never went to school anymore except for some few minute visits more on seeing us than really coming to the school. We would return this gesture by coming to his house as often as we could after class and on weekends.
His steps had grown slower and slower. He had stopped going to the second floor of his house. The climb needed so much effort that he would rest at every rung. And his vertigo too made the descend dangerous. The two rooms of the second floor of his house which he and his wife alternately used in their younger and healthier years had become a repository of something they want to discard but doesn’t have the heart to give it up to the garbage truck. The life-size bust of his wife’s grandfather, a pioneer of the town, sculpted by a U.P fine arts grad in the 30s was left in one of the rooms when they moved to the ground floor. Only when the municipality volunteered to care for the piece of art was it brought down and caged in glass in the municipal hall and became a museum article.
For twenty five years he never spoke to his sister in-laws. His quarrels, his misunderstandings with his wife’s sisters range from the pettiest like taking a bottle a vinegar without first asking permission to the biggest like taking money and land titles, the use of car his wife bought second hand and sacks of rice already milled, also without permission. The money was his, sent to him in money order check from the SSS during the time of Renato Valencia after more than 12 years of neglecting to fill up a form to collect it. But his wife’s sisters thought the money is his wife’s. A shouting quarrel worded with invectives and other words spoken only in hell, watched live and in person by some relatives including us was the last occasion they spoke. Although his sisters in law were only three, they’ve given him enough trouble to the point of wanting to die ahead of his wife. He knew how miserable his life could be without his wife.
“But you’re six years younger than your wife,” I said. “How can you die ahead?”
“I’m sicklier; she’s healthier.”
“Not one of you is sicklier or healthier. Your wife’s health is as bad as yours.”
“Then pray that I die ahead, that will be the biggest favor you’ll do to me. It might be unkindness to her to leave ahead but her sisters are giving me no choice”
“Alright, I’ll pray that you die ahead.”
“But if my prayers aren’t heard as God hardly hears my prayers, and what you fear is the one that will happen, what will you do?”
“I don’t know.”
We paused long. I withheld what I want to say. I studied his face to find out what reaction he might have for the thought I had in my mind.
“I know,” I said at last.
“I know what to do with you in case your wife dies ahead of you.”
“I’ll take you to my home.”
“What?” he said in disbelief.
“I’ll care for you in my home.”
“But we are not relatives?”
“It doesn’t matter. We don’t have to be relatives. You don’t have relatives here, neither friends except me.”
“How can you say that so easily? Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?”
“Of course I know what I’m talking about.”
“If I live three, four, five, six more years, excrete liquid stool in my pants urinate in my pants smell stool and stink urine you think you’ll still care for me? I might outlast you.”
“And you still think you’ll live that long with that health of yours with that age of yours?”
“Ok, ok, so you’ll really care for me until I die.” I knew he was controlling himself from crying. “You and Claudio, where is that boy? -- are my real friends, my time-tested friends. Where’s that boy?”
I protested the word “boy.” He said it twice; I didn’t want him referring us as boys a third time..
“Boy? We are not boys anymore. He’s in Manila, he came to say goodbye before he left, you don’t remember?”
“What is he doing in Manila?”
What I know is that Claudio is teaching some literature subjects but I can’t let him know. I don’t want him doubting Claudio’s capability in teaching the subject.
“I don’t know.”
“So he’s in Manila?”
“Let’s not talk about that bo…”
I interrupted with a look to his eyes not to allow the last letter pronounced.
“…yes, yes,” he continued. “He has left us; let’s not talk about him, what should be the word?”
“Guy, fellow,” I suggested.
“Yes, let’s not talk about that guy. But I would prefer to call him Totpo,” the inverted the Visayan word for persons of inadequate height. It was better. Poking fun at us is better than calling us boys.
“Let’s not talk about him. You’re not prepared with a topic to talk about. When you come you should be prepared. Anyway, know why I don’t have children? Because my wife’s eggs always all the time overlooked my sperm, the seed that I sprang hard each time, like they weren’t worthy of becoming human beings like I’m not worthy of becoming a father that’s the only thing I wasn’t good at. That’s the only thing I haven’t achieved. But I could have been as good as any other man, a father like them. But I cannot be unfaithful to my wife, she been with me all my life never was there an evening that she wasn’t with me and me wasn't with her. There was never a day in my forty seven years of marriage to her that we were not together. Maybe I could have impregnated a married woman -- a Manila businesswoman, but I did not do it because what good is it anyway if I have a child by another woman if I only acted as breeder and the child doesn’t know I’m his father. Know why I didn’t want to die when I was young as young as you are. What about you would you like to die with that age? I didn’t want to die when I was as young as you are because when one dies they’ll say ‘rest in peace.’ But what good is resting without tiring, yes what good is it resting without tiring? When you have rested your body it feels good to get tired again. You’re dirty minded that’s not the tiring I am saying. That tiring you have in your dirty mind is resting while tiring resting and tiring going along together, twining. My goodness you dirty minded twining of resting and tiring nothing more nothing less plain and simple now what do I mean I don’t know exactly neither do I mean what you are thinking. So that boy is in Manila. The Manila that I know is the Manila of the mid 50s and 60s and late 70s. Houses were made of wood; slums were not as many. Nobody lives under bridges in the Manila that I know. Where is Totpo living in Manila?”
“Tondo --Vitas Street,” I said quickly not wanting to interrupt him.
“Tondo? My goodness I never went to that place, Vitas Street, where the slaughter house is. My address was better when I was in Manila, Del Monte, near Lourdes School where I was teaching. See that frame over there?”
My eyes followed his lips merely in obedience. I’ve seen it a hundred times at the ledge of his bay window, a newspaper column he clipped from the Philippine Star by Isagani Cruz, the Mini Critique not the former Supreme Court justice. Him, Nieves Epistola and Bienvenido Lumbera were remembered by Cruz as his best teachers.
“You’ve seen that many times. Know who my neighbors were? One of them was a former senator, and vice president, never given a chance to take his oath though, became almost like crazy after that, regained his sanity when situation went back to normal.”
“Who was that?” I quickly asked.
“My goodness either you’re too dull to remember or you don’t care about our country. That part of our county’s history is too recent for you to forget. You never care about our country at all. As I said he got his sanity back when situation went back to normal again. There is no such word as normalcy I tell you. It was an American president, Warren Harding, yes Warren Harding who said that word. It’s incorrect, there is no such word. But it was later accepted as correct because he was the president of a powerful country. One local politician tried to do the same introducing incorrect word: aggrupation, yes, that’s the word. There is no such word. Your computer will underline it red, but not Harding’s normalcy. That local politician tried to use the word in his speeches but it never gained acceptance because he was not among them, he was among us. Anyway back to my neighbor. He was vice president to the madman from my province. One of these days I’m going to die I want cremation and I want my ash broadcast in my place, my place of boyhood in Ilocos -- Laoag City. Nobody wants my ash here. Help me think of an epitaph. But no I’ll be cremated. But perhaps I want these words in my epitaph if I’m buried in a tomb: HE ACHIEVED NOTHING. Will you jump into my fire while I’m being burned?”
“Where are we, India?” I scolded him. He allows me to scold him as long he is wrong. “And I’m not your wife. Ask that to your wife. Make your joke appropriate all the time,”
Our conversations were always like that, he did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. Allowing him talk was like opening an encyclopedia. We would talk about etymologies of words, about literature, about countries, about anything except math. The only side effects I got from allowing him talk without my interruption is that I learn something from him each time.
It was more than three months before I could visit him again. He was not home. He was brought to a hospital by a maid. He never troubled his wife to look after him when he’s in a hospital even in their younger days. I rushed to the hospital. As soon as I get there I hesitated, I suddenly lost the courage to see him. He could be in his last moments or he could be struggling to recover although with his age recovery was unlikely. Both ways I know he will be in a pitiful situation and I didn’t want to look at him in whatever situation. But I was already there.
“He’s there, ward 321,” the clerk at the information told me without being asked. She knew it was Gil I came to a visit.
I was with other people finding patients. He knew me by instinct. As I approached his bed I knew it was his instinct that told him I was coming. As soon as I was within the range of his fading senses, his face lighted. But it was long before he spoke perhaps overwhelmed by the joy of my arrival.
“What time is it now? Is it getting dark?”
I looked at the time in my cell phone. “It’s only a few minutes before three; it doesn’t get dark in hospital wards like this unless there is power failure.”
“And is it raining, do I hear the rain on the roof? It’s your joke that is inappropriate this time. It’s only about three you say but why I can see darkness now. Come on hold my right hand with your both hands, come on now. I’ve been waiting for you. See my dying time, you said few minutes to three. I'm like Jesus dying at three but I’m not God. So you’re good at praying. Know why I want to die now when actually I don’t really want to die yet? I’m dying at a time when I am sad. Who wants to die anyway? But this is what you prayed and I accept it I feel no bitterness in this dying. I can’t feel anything I’m numb all over my body. I can’t swallow the yolk this has been here in my mouth since last night. I can’t spit it out either. It’s not your prayer that is being heard by God it’s just my day now. I know this may not be the moment yet but it could be any moment now. I can see darkness now.”
His voice was not sad although moments ago he said he’s dying at a time when he is sad perhaps the gamut caused by his own disbelief in dying in the choicest time. The eyes that would look straight into mine whenever he wants to drive a point in our millions of conversations lowered its eyelid. His hands slowly loosened on mine. The rain had stopped and the downspout dripping the water that lingered on the gutter into a puddle was the only noise that sounded against the solemnity of his dying moment.
Five faces began to appear and a conversation among them began to take place. The faces were not meant to be seen by mortal eyes and their conversation is not meant to be listened by mortal ears. Their faces and their voices can be seen only by the eyes and ears of the person they provide guidance. They live behind the veil on the other side of time and always there for Gil. It’s only now that he recognized them. It’s only now that he realized these faces have been his companions all along. They welcomed him the way anybody might to a friend joining a journey. They have been walking with him as he stumbles through the world. Gil and me and Claudio have attempted deism, to just believing in God but not accepting religion and its teachings. But each time we do so we fall back to accepting our religion because it is our religion itself that teaches about God. We have tried atheism as well but disbelieving God is just like being at the other side of the same mountain. The shadow still falls on us. Entertaining these thoughts in our minds could be a weak point and a fault in our hearts. But the faces keep no record of weak points or faults and never took those thoughts of ours personally.
They know the coming of the priest whom we had misunderstandings in the management of the school where we were teaching. They have myriad of ways to divert the priest from getting into Gil’s death bed but they did not do anything.
The priest and his assistant got down from his motorcycle and walked to the hospital. The arrogant thuds of the heels and soles of the priest's shoes were amplified by the moment’s silence. But as soon as they saw us they seemed to conceal their arrogance especially the priest and hesitated in their approach. But it’s his responsibility to perform the final sacrament whether the dying person wants it or not, whether the dying person likes him or not. He could be answerable to God if he does not perform it. He got his crucifix out of his shirt to dangle in his chest like he was going to perform exorcism instead of extreme unction.
A bit of Gil’s instinct was still with him when the priest was about to begin. He saw the priest in his dying mind with the same vagueness as a dream
I don’t want this ceremony I don’t need heaven if this is the priest that oils my sole I’ve not yet died before but I’ve seen somebody about to die like me at this moment he’ll be touching my head with his hand the way he’ll do to my sole keep you hands off me that hand of yours that raises the Holy Host is the same hand that pushed this friend of mine down almost hitting his head on edge of a desk and that hand of yours aimed a punch at him and that mouth of yours that says it’s the body of Christ you’re holding is the same mouth that told us threatening words now what are you doing to my feet? This guy, he’s a priest can’t make this rite holy God was never wrong with His mind in allowing people to do rites like this Not even gods in myths will accept your prayer Yours are not prayers to God but incantation to the devil You’re the worst priest ever assigned to this parish Your sermons are the worst; you’re the dumbest sermon speaker I’ve ever known You have no shame to speak your sermons to the churchgoers without preparation Your churchgoers are educated even twice higher in education than you My goodness you’re the only priest I know who delivers homilies on a whatever-comes-to-your-mind basis You can’t make this rite holy – this rite is not holy No priest came for Jesus, his feet didn’t have oil when he died but blood from nail punctures The lightning that struck at Jesus’ moment of death was not meant for Judas but for you What are you doing Leave me alone.
The priest went on with what he was doing leafing pages of his black book. And then his hand, glistening with coconut oil, touched Gil’s forehead and recited pre-worded prayers not his own.
I didn’t mind him. I moved my hand from the wrist where the pulse slowed and stopped, to the joint of his elbow, to his bicep and to his chest. For a long moment I kept my hand there. The heart wasn’t struggling. It was simply like a candle wick toppling as it runs out of tallow. I lifted his hand and released.It dropped like a flag on a windless day.
Come on Gil, let’s go now, one of faces said as he reached for his hand. They waited as he hesitated to leave perhaps not wanting to leave while the priest has not left yet. It was too soon to wear off the livings’ idea of existence in this world.